Often culturally glamorized for establishment bucking, innovative musical clucking and free-spirited…lovemaking, the hippie movement of the 70s had a darker edge that tends to be glossed over. Sure, part of the poor remembrance can be blamed on a certain herb’s side effects, but it also speaks to our tendency to reduce history to broad brushstrokes when the real meaning is in the little nuances and decisions of the past.
The Source Family is a documentary that explores an allegedly utopian family led by James Edward Baker, a Silver Star-earning World War II Marine who was a renowned Jujitsu expert. How much of a Jujitsu expert, you may ask? He killed two people with karate chops. And then he moved to California and founded a few successful restaurants with the money he got from robbing multiple banks. The next obvious step was to found a spiritual commune and rename himself Father Yod, taking multiple wives, most of whom were underage. Oh, and he had a rock band, for which he was the lead singer, named YaHoWha 13.
As crazy as it sounds, there were downsides to following a bank-robbing, karate-chop-killing, statutory-raping cult leader. Directors Maria Demopoulos and Jodi Wille interview scores of former Source Family members, many of whom regret much more than simply changing their names to things like “Orbit.” Baker was an irresponsible madman (as opposed to the responsible madmen of the world). He abandoned people who loved him, including multiple wives. He put the lives of his “family” at risk with dangerous health practices and self-aggrandizing behaviors. And, perhaps worst of all, made really, really awful psychedelic music.
The Source Family is a tight documentary. It’s not particularly creative visually, opting for copious amounts of still frame photos that are zoomed into and out of. It’s not original content-wise, crammed with various talking heads, most of them former participants of the cult with some “experts” of music or culture scattered about. But the lack of creative production does allow for an organic and (at least apparently) truthful feeling, as the stories are mostly first-hand.
What is unclear is the impact of The Source Family outside of their compound. Their crappy rock albums are apparently sought after by collectors, and Baker’s main restaurant was frequented by celebrities, but it is not particularly obvious if this was an obscure oddity of the 1970s or somehow representative of a bigger picture. To be sure, the cult’s focus on “sex magic” reinforces our lasting perception of the era, but The Source Family doesn’t feel like an indictment of the times so much as a one-off observation.
As a curiosity, you could do worse than The Source Family. It’s hard not to be somewhat engrossed by Father Yod, even if the package presented is less enjoyable than it is textbook-designed, which is kind of funny given the bizarre and rebellious nature of the subject. If nothing else, it will make you appreciate how functional your real family is by comparison…
Grade = B-